What does amateur mean? Widening participation (2)

Amy Louise Webber, 30 June 2012


I got first involved in theatre via participatory projects/interventions which means I’m now really interested in theatre projects which encourage similar participation or engagement from those in the community who may not have had experienced this kind of performance before. I believe this can be really beneficial in a number of ways and I suggested this topic as I hoped to have a broad discussion around some key opportunities/challenges - which I think is what emerged. Joe and I decided on a joint session as there was some crossover in our questions. Joe’s report is also available – I’m working from an audio recording (cheating a bit) which is why mine is quite detailed but still a bit ‘notey’. Here are some of the big questions/discussions we captured today. Thank you to our lovely group for all their contributions.

Perceptions of amateur Vs perceptions of ‘professional’ what’s the meaning, significance and is the distinction necessary?

The group started off with consideration of what these two labels mean.

Typical perceptions/assumptions of ‘Amateur’ (companies, groups, individuals) • Does it for love
• Lower standard
• Part time/hobbyist

• More control over their own productions • Pay less for script rights
• Less need to evidence impact/spend
• Not commercial

• Not formally trained • A status
• An attitude
• A perception

Typical perceptions/assumptions of ‘Professional’
• Does it for money (earning a living)
• Formally trained in accordance with industry and other expectations • High standard of production, greater expectation
• Funded/commercial /need to make profit
• Full time
• A status
• An attitude
• A perception

Conflicts and considerations:
As we know there are many grey areas, crossovers, contradictions and exceptions to the above, and that reality may not always reflect assumptions. Key points which were made were in response to his were:

There are blurred boundaries around notions/definitions of: amateur, community, non-professional, professional, participation, participatory theatre.

Everyone starts off as an amateur. Nobody talks about ‘amateur’ painters. Yet most commonly viewed as professional once you are being paid.

Participatory performance or those using volunteers – what are the issues around this ‘taking work’ from ‘professional’ performers – work is scarce and inequality issues around pay across the arts abound. Challenges of delivering mixed economy shows. Value and equality systems tough.

What do we mean by ‘participation’? Some artists want control over their work, and it is defined by the artist - participation can blur the boundaries. There is a clear need to communicate ‘Why’ volunteers or community members are used in a professional production, and what is expected - Should not be just a box ticking exercise in order to demonstrate benefits – a need to evidence and research properly that benefits are really happening. Again, depends on meaning of participation itself. Evidencing impact can be challenging and expensive – how to measure – bums on seats? What happens if there are no seats?

Politics can often see art as a liberal past time – a hobby not a profession, there is often a need to demonstrate that a project is professional and worthy of financing. Money is often the key factor in determining a ‘professional’ production – a need to examine how art and theatre are valued more widely in society. Culturally taught to value art financially – need to reassess this. Is it sometimes easier not to have money in terms of freedom of creativity? Theatres want bums on seats, arts orgs want grants... where is the audience in this? Amateur sector more closely connected to audience wants? Charles Handy – understanding voluntary organisations book.. Anyone who works for free is getting paid but just not in money. A need to work out a different exchange.

Should we move beyond ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ and let projects be defined by who is paying to see them? If the audience is paying does it matter? What about students/graduates – they make work – why are they only ‘professional’ on graduation? What’s the difference between an ‘emerging artist’ and an ‘artist’? Qualified or non-qualified – what is the role of ‘the expert’ no always related to qualifications.

Reaching out and connecting

The internet recognises that you don’t need a certificate and that internet as audience knows that something of huge quality can punch through the glass ceiling of control and patronage. Now you can use the internet to platform things and reach wider audiences directly. You can make things happen with technology as you can hear other voices which think similarly. Set free a ‘whisper’ which snowballs – strong links between internet and democracy – flash mob as performance art.

Is there an economic benefit in cross-pollinating professionals/non-professionals?

Need to ‘bill’ yourself as an artist to others. Social media has changed the ways in which his is possible – now a need to be self-defining – more empowering for artists.

Need to always engage with ‘the amateur or non-professional’ as this could be a voice that needs airing. Few opportunities for adults in relation to opportunities provided for younger people. The benefits or art and drama are often cited for children – why does this stop as they grow? Need to examine audiences/opportunities for engagement across the life course.

The need to give opportunities to build and develop audiences – this can be done through participatory projects – Do we need more in the South West? How do we give people these opportunities? How do we give people who want to connect connection opportunities? More important to find people who had never even considered theatre/art ? How do we find those people?

Need to re-think not ‘participation’ but ‘theatre’ taking performance out of the building, re-imaging it to make it more attractive to a wider audience. Need to acknowledge how art is perceived by many (negatively) and finding something which is ‘big’ enough but also powerful enough and relevant enough to appeal..or at least hard to ignore.. i.e royal deluxe puppet. Is about how you go about interrupting people’s realities in a joyful careful way. Theatre is an art form and a building. Need to find something capable of striking awe into everyday individuals. Interrupting realities in a joyful way – France is very good at this.

Pop up performance across the city. Refurbishment of old Vic was a great opportunity to push theatre out to other places. Forced different patterns of movement in the city by artists and audiences. Not much money involved – even so it was done by professionals.

There is a need to increase participation in theatre by audiences but also a need to integrate different disciplines into the art world. Use art and theatre to communicate the ‘key messages’ or challenges of our time. Also a need to make the ‘language’ more accessible and conversation less introspective. Break down barriers and increase understanding. Example – relationship between art and science.

Its all about values and aims.. ‘know your ‘WHY’

Art gives a different perspective on life – it encourages meaning making, and can reveal the true creative potential of individuals. There is also an economic argument for this. If the purpose of art is to reflect life then need to attract performers/creative’s from a wider remit. As artists it’s our role to be constantly looking about how you make the story engaging. Its about re-knowing – when art tells you something that you already sort of knew. It turns your head sideways.. it was always there but the work has managed to explain it to you or relocated it for you.

Its necessary to embrace future-facing work –peak oil etc – a need to communicate key messages to wide audiences.. how to turn people around to face these big challenges through art in a way that doesn’t make It seem impossible... when really its easier to be down the pub.

It’s about communicating the elephant in the room but also knowing why as an individual and as an artist, you do what it is you do.


theatre, Bristol Old Vic, Tobacco Factory, bristol old vic, actors, amateur, professional, participation, tobacco factory, widen, arts, passion, Theatre, participatory arts, participatory theatre, widening participation, know your WHY